In December 2016, as Dubai was gearing up for the new year and workers across the city were putting the finishing touches to the spectacular party that would illuminate the sky in a matter of days, UAE President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan made an announcement that at first generated relatively little fanfare.

The 12 months ahead, he said, was to be known as the ‘Year of Giving’, and would feature three distinct themes: encouraging social responsibility in the private sector, promoting the spirit of volunteerism and specialised voluntary programmes in all segments of society, and strengthening the concept of serving the nation among the younger generations.

The effect has already been profound. The programme has acted as a catalyst for a huge number of initiatives, with 1,400 outlined across the seven Emirates, including everything from charity skydives and beach cleans to fully fledged humanitarian programmes and pro-bono legal work. But it isn’t just about government and individuals doing their bit. UAE businesses – and many right across the GCC – are, in some cases for the first time, starting to take the value of community activities seriously. Not only are they the ‘right’ thing to do and offer benefits for corporate reputation, they strengthen employees’ bonds with the company and act as an excellent retention tool.

In short, people want to work for businesses they feel care about their communities, not just the bottom line. This is born out by a survey of more than 10,000 local employees, which found that 76 per cent want to work for a company that is socially responsible, and just under 90 per cent feel the corporate sector has a ‘moral responsibility’ to take part in corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. Around 90 per cent also prefer to buy products and services from a socially responsible business.

Among the organisations responding favourably so far are petrochemicals giant Borouge, where 40 staff volunteered their time to visit autism centres across the Emirates and support children with lessons in arts, music, English and sport. Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority has donated school buses and bicycles to poor countries to make it easier for children to get to school. Charitable foundations have also gotten involved, including the Dar Al Ber Society in Ajman, which has distributed almost 30,000 hygiene packages to local workers.

Claire Donnelly, a Dubai-based former HR leader turned consultant, says people increasingly want to feel they are working for an organisation that can look outward and take responsibility for its community. “In a world of social media, we are no longer able to ignore humanitarian events that are happening around the world,” she says. “Employees need to know that their company cares and wants to help as much as it can.

“Over the last few years, all industries have been struggling to find and retain talented employees while keeping a close eye on the bottom line. The initiative by the UAE is helping companies start to think about how they can give back to good causes.”

In the longer term, establishing a business’s social and moral conscience could help in the all-important area of retaining talent, she says. “In my experience, the main challenge HR professionals have is convincing top bosses that this is an area they need to focus on. CEOs and their immediate reports are challenged to hit their company numbers, so any distraction that does not add to the bottom line is a tough sell. HR professionals need to provide evidence on how ‘giving back’ initiatives save the company money. The fact that motivated employees stay, reducing employee turnover, is one such argument.”

The most successful initiatives are more than just philanthropy, although in this area Middle East businesses are among the most generous in the world. The key (whether you call it CSR or just community work) is that ideas should be generated organically rather than imposed and should utilise the unique skills and services of an organisation rather than simply involving a donation of money or goods.

The make-up of employees, however – in terms of age, nationality and remuneration – poses a challenge to HR professionals to roll out initiatives that catch the imagination of an entire company. One of the more effective ways to create meaningful initiatives is to tap into the workforce itself.

“Ask them!” says Donnelly. “Introduce a staff council and meet each month to discuss the topic, or set up a staff engagement survey specifically for the purpose. You will be surprised where some of the best ideas come from. Include employees from all levels, designations, age groups and nationalities. Let them tell you their ideas and act on them. Not all ‘giving back’ initiatives are extrinsic motivated; employees are more likely to be motivated intrinsically. And if they can get behind the idea, they are far more likely to find it interesting and enjoyable.”

Many companies have done just that – OSN, the direct-broadcast satellite provider, is one example. “We believe change comes from within, which is why we start our CSR journey together with our staff,” says people director John Ireland. “To inspire a culture of giving within OSN, our employees share their knowledge, skills, hobbies and interests through ‘Learn@Lunch’ sessions. We create a sense of purpose for our staff, provide them a platform for engagement and create opportunities where every one of them will benefit from our actions.”

Ireland says that part of OSN’s mission is to be a business that cares about the communities it operates in. “We acknowledge our role as one of the most well-known companies in the region and understand that our actions have an impact on our region and its people,” he says.

One of many new initiatives rolled out was a pilot where content protection – a crucial part of OSN’s remit as a large media organisation – meets CSR. “We took a pilot to a local Dubai school where the children – including the daughter of an employee – created their own e-books and learned the value of owning their own copyrighted works. Given the success of the pilot, we are now looking to roll this out on a wider basis,” Ireland says.

It’s not easy, of course, to create long-lasting and genuine CSR initiatives that might end up impacting on thousands of people from a centrally located HR team that often has more than enough on its plate. Some businesses are creating special community departments to handle the concept, but others are bridging the gaps with consultants and social enterprises such as Consult and Coach for a Cause (C3). Since its inception in 2012, it has focused on helping hundreds of social entrepreneurs in the Middle East become financially sustainable and demonstrated a positive impact on society by connecting them with expert volunteers.

Founder and CEO Medea Nocentini says the Year of Giving has already led to a major uplift in interest in CSR. And she has some sage advice for businesses dipping their toes into community waters for the first time: “HR professionals should consider how they can connect their initiatives with their employees’ needs for meaning and accomplishment. For instance, initiatives where volunteering is involved can increase employee engagement levels at work if the employee is empathetic to the initiative’s target group and if they expect to accomplish something from it. Targets could include improving a skills gap, a chance to network with senior management or an opportunity to apply for different roles in the organisation.

“To give some examples from our own experience, we find that all nationalities and cultures come together when local and pressing social and environmental causes are at the heart of the programmes. We also find that employees engage with a programme, whatever level of experience they have in volunteering, when they can put their skills to good use.

“The most successful initiatives are simple, have a clear mission and a straightforward message: education, healthcare and the environment seem to be very close to the hearts of organisations and individuals, while job creation and entrepreneurship are of interest to the local community. Anything that goes beyond typical CSR initiatives and allows a business to leverage its resources and those of its employees into a relevant social need will have that ‘feelgood factor’.”

Donnelly agrees with that idea. Marathons and other charity runs, projects to build local nurseries or even simple beach cleans can empower employees and give them a sense of pride, she says.

And Ireland says that one way companies can leverage their initiatives is by complementing them with the national visions of the counties where they operate: “We highly value the visions, ambitions and focus areas that have been identified by the regional governments, such as UAE Vision 2021, Dubai Plan 2030 and Saudi Vision 2030, and we will do our best to align our interests with these focus areas and also to positively contribute to achieving these targets and aspirations.”

And the importance of companies giving back is only going to increase in the future. A common problem for many businesses, says Donnelly, is a communication gap between leaders and their younger team members, most of whom fall into the much-debated millennial generation. “One requirement millennials have is a clear sense of purpose; they want to be able to make a positive difference in the world – it is very important that companies harness this desire and engage with them,” she says.

“The most precious thing for employees in the GCC is not money, it’s time,” adds Nocentini. “Throughout the years, we have always had more experts ready to help than social entrepreneurs in need of support.”

Giving something back

The HR community is at the heart of giving across the GCC – but it also has the chance to be a major beneficiary, thanks to a new partnership between CIPD Middle East and The Entertainer.

The CIPD’s purpose is to ‘champion better work and working lives’, and the tie-up aims to promote better work-life integration. “We hope this partnership will encourage our members to go out and enjoy themselves more, perhaps join a gym to keep fit, spend more quality time with friends and family or just enjoy a meal with colleagues,” says Matthew Mee, managing director of CIPD Middle East.

The CIPD, together with The Entertainer, will provide VIP access to a selection of gyms, spas, restaurants, hotels and more to members across the GCC. A discount code will also be available to more than 14,000 HR professionals in the wider CIPD network; subscribe and find out more at

“The Entertainer immediately came to mind as a partner that can provide tangible benefits to CIPD members right across the region,” says Mee. “And what’s also great is seeing how committed it is as an organisation to employee health and wellbeing and supporting the Year of Giving.”

The Dubai-headquartered firm is a well-known publisher of buy one, get one free offers for restaurants, leisure attractions and hotels across the Middle East.

But The Entertainer also has a history of looking after its local communities, having previously taken part in charity initiatives such as ‘Cricket for a Cause’, where its cricket team competed to raise money for Dubai Cares.

According to Chantal Endemann, the company’s head of HR: “CSR gives us all a chance, both the employees and The Entertainer, to contribute towards the society and world we live in. We all live for ourselves – this is human nature – but doing something for those in need is a different feeling altogether.”

The Entertainer’s dedication to CSR has been driven by its founder and chairman, Donna Benton, who has promoted the importance of health and fitness and made it part of the business’s culture.

“We encourage a healthy lifestyle and foster a positive, social environment in and out of the workplace. This culture is the foundation of our innovation and success,” says Endemann.

The CIPD will also be participating in different initiatives to give back during Ramadan, and will extend the opportunity to help and support others to its 3,000 members in the Middle East.

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At the CIPD, we champion better work and working lives. We help organisations to thrive by focusing on their people, supporting economies and society for the future. We lead debate as the voice for everyone wanting a better world of work.